Sri Lanka disaster risk reduction

Apr 18, 2011 (LBO) – The cruel paradox of disaster risk reduction is that the more lives you save, the more people with destroyed livelihoods there will be.

This month, April of 2011, marks the 25th anniversary of the Kantale dam disaster. In the early hours of the 20th of April 1986 a villager knocked on the Irrigation Engineer’s door and told him something was wrong. The water of the filled-to-capacity reservoir, one of the largest in Sri Lanka, was gushing out. Sluices are built at the deepest point. Gravity rules that all the water goes.

At least 176 people died. Perhaps more, I was told while interviewing the key players. I was skeptical. How could you not know, I asked. “Where do you think all that water went? To the ocean. Who knows how many bodies it took to the sea?”

Back in 2005, in the traumatic aftermath of the tsunami that killed around one in 550 Sri Lankans without any official warning being issued, the lives lost mattered the most to me.

Lives or livelihoods?

But today, what strikes me most deeply is something else. As I view the documentary we made in Kantale back in 2005, what haunts me is the statement by a survivor. All that we had built up got washed away, he said. Now we have painstakingly built up our lives again.

As I watch it again (as can you, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srTm8wZb_UQ) in April 2011, I wonder whether all that they had built up since 1986 had got washed away, again. Two successive periods of heavy rainfall at the beginning of the year devastated the livelihoods of the people of the wav bandi rajje, the irrigation civilization we are so proud of. Flood upon flood. More than 200 small tanks breached; big tanks were saved by the emergency actions of irrigation engineers.

Immediate estimates were that it would take LKR 5 billion to restore the damaged irrigation works. The roads would require in excess of LKR 50 billion. How much would it take to restore the livelihoods of the people who had their crops, equipment, stocks and homes destroyed? I saw no estimates.

This is how it plays out in Sri Lanka. In the case of Kantale 25 years ago, we know that the government spent LKR 65 million for relief and LKR 186 million (in 1986 money) to repair the dam. No one counted the damage to livelihoods back then, like today.

What does not get counted does not get fixed.

What is fixing?

The simplest answer is that the government makes (or should make) those who lost their livelihoods whole. But it is not that simple.

Where does the money come from, disaster after disaster? How does the government know what each affected family lost? Is it fair to give all affected families the same support? If not the same, how can differential treatment be justified? What records must be produced? How can political interference be dealt with? How can incentives be created for risk-reducing behaviors?

If not government handouts, what? Insurance. This is the classic solution to the problem of managing risk. The principles do not have to be invented from scratch. All over the world (at least in the developed parts) farmers are shielded from risks to livelihoods by insurance.

Why not insurance?

Why have we not used insurance to reduce risks to the livelihoods of our farmers, instead of relying on the government acting as the” insurer” or of providing no support at all?

Insurance is based on actuarial science; the calculation of probabilities of bad things happening. These calculations cannot be done without basic information such as inundation maps, reliable and detailed meteorological records, and so on.

And of course, there can be no insurance without premiums. And we have no insurance culture in Sri Lanka. Thanks to mindless nationalizations, we have even less insurance participation per capita in Sri Lanka than in India.

Insurance is a system. It is not only about insurance providers, but also about different patterns of record keeping and behaviors among the insured. Think about how driving behavior changes in the face of no-claim incentives.

I am no insurance expert. I realize this is a long and hard road. But it seems that we have no alternative but to collectively develop a practical alternative, insurance-based or other, to the dysfunctional system we now have. In the face of climate change (what else would you call the unprecedented rainfall of early 2011?) we cannot continue to subject our people to debilitating cycles of livelihood destruction.

LIRNEasia’s 2nd annual risk reduction lecture and response panel will address this issue, among others. It is open to the public and will be held at the BCIS Auditorium (BMICH premises) at 4 PM on the 27th of April 2011. It could be the start of something good for our people living in the shadow of the dams.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.